Jonson'a definition and discussion of poetry emphasised
that poetry was an imitation of life. There were several aspects to
this. Poetry was for Jonson, as for Sidney, the initiation of a
higher realism, but he, unlike Sidney, thought that this must be
presented in terns of and with the appearance of real life. Jonson
required a more realistic and objective imitation than Sidney, who had
emphasised the poet's imaginative freedom.
Among his requirements for the poet, Jonson also stressed
the importance of study. He did, nevertheless, admit the prior
necessity of ability and of training, and the importance of inspiration
for perceiving and presenting the Truth. His idea of study was taken
partly from Horace, but largely from Cicero and Quintilian. Cicero
had required the orator to have a knowledge of all important subjects
and arts; and Quintilian, that he i*t least be acquainted with his
subject; Jonson's requirement for the poet conflates both of these.
Though poetry had an ancient association with learning, it was not
factual information but a true understanding of life which the poet
must convey; all his study was directed to discovering and promoting
the best manner of life. Since the poet must teach the good life, be
must also be a good man. He must, in fact, be good, learned, and
skilled in hie art. And it was his art which utilized his ability,
his learning, and his skills to the best advantage.
Jonson turned to the past for his standards at a time
when the Classics were regarded as the highest literary achievement.
His point of view was typical of the Renaissance, but the assurance
and the purposefulness with which he drew from the past was a promise
of neo-classicism. He searched there for Truth and Wisdom, and took
thence, particularly from the Stoics, his ideal of man. He also sought
models of expression, but he transformed what he took and made, for
example, the classical into the English epigram. What was taken from
the past was used for the present. The past often became a standard,
and Jonson used historical and mythographical figures to convey his
coral and literary ideals, and to be sure the achievement of the present.
His use of the past did not, however, imply that it could not be
surpassed, for, under the Influence of Vives and Bacon, he clearly
believed in the possibility of progress.
Jonson's poems to friends and associates present a 'picture',
an image of his ethical and literary ideals. They often define an ideal
of character and its relationship to literature and society; the
epigram permitted Jonson to express this with brevity, clarity, and
conciseness. Poems to great poets and scholars, such as Donne and
Selden, are the occasion for reflections on humanistic values concerning
the importance of character in the search for Truth, the need to achieve
a true understanding of life and of the past, and the significance of
friendship in the social order. Jonson's patrons also receive verses
which are a celebration of his values. A poem to Lady Bedford shows how
he envisaged life in terms of his ideals; a poem to Pembroke, that he
saw some special affinity between the *picture* and the epigram. Jonson
relationship with the Sidneys, the most brilliant and accomplished
patrons of the age, led him to praise and compliment various member, of
the family, but always in terms of their common humanistic values.
The great public figures of the age are likewise
envisaged in terms of Jonson's values, though always on the basis of
their real accomplishments. They represent an ideal of the soldier
and of the statesman. The poems to contemporaries depict faithfully
the life of their subjects and also hint at contemporary issues; they
show that Jonson exercised discernment in his choice of people to
praise, and of qualities to praise in them. Yet, he himself admitted
to having praised unworthy men. Those, however, who might have been
regarded as unworthy are praised for genuine qualities and achievements;
Jonson gives an estimate of them which was valid at the time of composition. Jonson integrated many elements into his poetry: praise and
instruction, the person and the 'pictura', moral and factual truth,
the universal principle and the particular example.
The poetry which dates from after 1616 shows changes from
the earlier practice, Jonson ceased to define a 'pictura' and turned
to more particular subjects. He also abandoned the epigram for genres
which allow longer and more expansive treatment; the development of his
mode of lamenting death and of praising fellow poets shows this
development. His praise combined the old values and discernment with
the new ideal of the virtuoso, but with a faltering confidence in the
value of human effort and poetry.
Jonson's belief that poetry should 'express' the life of
man led him not only to imitate contemporary manners but to reflect
the social and intellectual currents of the age, both of which he
employed in hie attempt to make life understood.